Just got an email from a reader who complained that a feature in my newspaper had contained blatant sexism that demeaned, humiliated, stigmatized and objectified an entire gender — reducing human beings to their physical characteristics alone. The odd thing about this letter is that it was from a man, and he was outraged on behalf of men. Short men, like him.
He was quoting from a dating feature in which the woman expressed a preference for tall men. It made him feel awkward, even undesirable. He contended the newspaper would never allow a man to say something so discriminatory about his taste in women, in reference to a physical characteristic about which they are sensitive. If a guy said he prefers women who aren’t flat-chested, the letter writer said, my newspaper would never run that quote. He’s right. I confirmed it with an editor of that particular feature.
This is not to suggest that men are equally objectified in our society. Obviously, it’s not even close. Men are bad and largely unapologetic about it, especially amongst themselves. Years ago, a guy I was interviewing earnestly told me that he had a foolproof system for assessing whether a woman could be a good romantic partner for him. He leaned in, as though he was about to impart some complicated calculus. But then he held his hands out, palms toward me, thumbs parallel to the floor and touching at the tips. “If her butt is wider than this,” he said, proudly, “I’m out of there.”
So, no parity. However, I will say the writer raised an interesting point. So I contacted my friend Gina Barreca, the feminist scholar, who always delights in proving me wrong on matters of gender relations.
Gene: So I think the guy is on to something. If you Google “I don’t like short men” you get 63,000 hits, virtually all from women expressing their bias. If you Google “I don’t like flat-chested women” you get 2,700 hits. Why is this not evidence of some form of sexist preferences that is for some reason tolerated?
Gina: First, Google numbers are notoriously fickle. Relying on them for anything is madness. But also, searching for single phrases, as though they mean anything, is absurd. Not many men say “I like tall women.” Men don’t “like” tall women, or short ones, or blond ones. They find the category convenient, as in “I prefer a woman who can look up to me literally, because it will never happen figuratively.”
Gene: I happen to like blondes. As blondes.
Gina: You like what you think blondes represent: a polished, steely and sophisticated exterior covering a cool intelligence and icy-yet-hot passion.
Gene: Bull. It goes back to childhood. It’s because I preferred Betty to Veronica entirely on the basis of intelligence and personality since they were drawn identically.
Gina: I’ll admit it’s true that women also want men we can look up to, which might explain the bias for tall guys, or short men with offices on the top floors of high buildings.
Gene: You’re saying women like rich, powerful men?
Gina: You are saying that. I am saying what I said. I’m saying the short guy has got to be interesting if he made it up that high. Plus, some things can be compensated for, which is why women like men with a sense of humor.
Gene: You all say that, but I’m not sure I believe it. Would you take funny over handsome? Gilbert Gottfried over Brad Pitt?
Gina: This is the point where I offer you a draw.
Gene: This is the point where I accept it.
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